Symptoms of stress: physical, emotional, behavioural and more

Stressed man

The modern world can feel like one big stress generator. Stressors (situations or events which trigger the stress response) seem to be all around us. The symptoms of stress are everywhere too...

If you know what to look for.

Most of us are so used to experiencing stress ourselves and seeing signs of stress in others that we gloss over it as normal.

But while a little stress can actually be good for you, long-term exposure to stress is very dangerous.

Let's start with the basics:

What is stress?

Stress is your body's “emergency mode”. It is sometimes called the “fight or flight response” or “stress response”.

The evolutionary point of stress is to kick you into a heightened state. This state prepares you to survive challenging situations. You might be face-to-face with a predator or need to react quickly to prevent a car crash.

When called upon in short doses, your stress response gives you more energy and focus by releasing a whole bunch of special hormones like cortisol and adrenaline:

Your blood pressure rises. Your muscles tense for action. Your heart pumps faster. Your reactions speed up. But, for some people, the stress response is triggered at times when it is not helpful. Or it is triggered far too often to be healthy...

When this happens, so do bad things. Acute stress, episodic acute stress and chronic stress are serious health conditions which can have a whole range of bad outcomes.

To prevent these conditions from developing or to try to manage them when they do, the first thing you need to know are the symptoms of stress and anxiety.

Stressed man on couch

What are the symptoms of stress and anxiety?

The symptoms of stress can be split into four parts – physical, emotional, cognitive and behavioural:

1) Physical symptoms of stress

The physical symptoms of stress are mainly linked to the – what would be in other circumstances beneficial – effects of being in the fight or flight state.

You might experience:

  • Headaches
  • Digestive upsets or feelings of nausea
  • Aching or tense muscles, possibly and most noticeably in your jaw, causing teeth grinding
  • Shaking
  • Increased sweating, especially of your hands and feet
  • A heart that is beating too fast – perhaps even painfully
  • Difficulty sleeping and a consequent lack of energy
  • A reduced immune response
  • A dry mouth or trouble swallowing

2) Emotional symptoms of stress

The emotional symptoms of stress are everything you might imagine from regular exposure to a state which is designed to help you beat dangerous situations.

You might notice that you:

  • Become agitated, frustrated or moody more easily
  • Have low self-esteem or feel lonely or worthless
  • Want to avoid others
  • Start to suffer from depression

3) Cognitive symptoms of stress

As well as affecting your body and emotional state, stress – particularly too much stress – can affect your mind too.

The cognitive symptoms of stress might mean you are:

  • In a constant state of worry
  • More prone to forget things
  • Often struggling to focus
  • Less likely to make good decisions
  • Only able to see the negative side of any event or situation

4) Behavioural symptoms of stress

The fourth quarter of the stressful cake is made up of the behavioural systems of stress.

These might include:

  • A desire to procrastinate and avoidance of decision-making or responsibilities
  • Nervous behaviours, such as fidgeting
  • Increased use of “crutches”, such as alcohol, cigarettes or drugs
  • Decreased or increased appetite
  • Decreased sex drive
Stressed man at work

Symptoms of stress at work

The symptoms of stress at work can present themselves as any of the above behaviours, emotional states or cognitive and physical symptoms. One of the most common symptoms of work-related stress is insomnia or restlessness before going to sleep. This is probably due to worrying about the working day tomorrow – even if that worry is not quite at the conscious level. People who are experiencing stress at work may feel a sense of dread when thinking about or discussing their working life or before going to work every day. This may impair their productivity, happiness and eventually their ability to live their lives entirely.

Stress and symptoms of stress in women

Most people might say that women experience more stress than men. But the evidence does not seem to be there to support it. What the evidence is there to support is the fact that women are more likely to seek help when suffering from stress. There is also some evidence to show that women are more likely to experience stress-related to more general concepts such as hate crimes, global warming or war than men do.

Stressed Woman

Get help for your stress

Spotting signs of stress in yourself or friends and family members is one thing. Doing something about it is something else entirely.

Your first step should be to acknowledge that you have a problem and a decision that you are going to do something about.

Your next steps might be small ones:

  • 1. Take a few minutes extra per day to yourself – if at all possible. Or why not try simply doing less? Say “no” a few more times when normally you might say “yes”.
  • 2. Consider taking up meditation – you might try it as mindfulness, tai chi or yoga. But whatever it is, meditation can have a hugely beneficial effect on your stress levels.
  • 3. Try any of the many available stress relief products – there is a huge range on the market, many of which have been proven to work. Finding the right one for you is probably a case of checking reviews or personal recommendations and trying to match people with similar symptoms.
  • 4. Talking about your problems with a friend or family member – you might be surprised how therapeutic it can be to simply tell someone how you are feeling.
  • 5. Getting more sleep – stop drinking caffeine in the run-up to bedtime, turn off screens and try not to eat or perform anything too physically draining.

If you feel that you are suffering from stress and it is impacting your daily life though, you really should consider speaking to your doctor about it. With some studies saying that as many as 33% of people regularly perceive signs of stress and anxiety within themselves, you are not alone.

Henry Warren I am a professional writer and health & wellness enthusiast.